OCTOBER 28, 2016
New Montrose Barbecue Joint The Pit Room Commits to Craft
Article & photos by J.C. Reid
The sign outside The Pit Room, a new barbecue joint in Montrose, advertises "handcrafted barbecue." "Handcrafted" or just "craft" is a descriptor that gets thrown around a lot these days in the barbecue world. It's used to indicate that a pitmaster employs traditional and time-consuming techniques to produce a high-quality product, rather than the automated and lower-quality techniques used in the 1990s.
However, craft barbecue is a broad term. On one end of the scale, some barbecue joints are still mostly automated but justify using "craft" because they add smoke flavor to meat otherwise cooked with gas. On the other end are joints that make every dish on their menu from scratch and use only all-wood-burning pits to flavor and cook their meat.
Only a handful of joints in Texas qualify for the latter definition of craft barbecue. The Pit Room is one of them.
"From the beginning, I knew I wanted everything we serve to be made from scratch," says managing partner Michael Sambrooks, who co-owns the restaurant with members of his family.
Easier said than done. Cooking barbecue on the custom-built, offset firebox, barrel-style pits that Sambrooks uses requires almost constant attention from his team of pitmasters.
"Our pits run 24 hours a day," he says.
Similarly, the vast majority of barbecue joints either buy commercially packaged sausage or have the sausage made to their recipe by a local butcher or meat distributor. Very few actually make the sausage in-house. The Pit Room does.
"It's a three-day process," Sambrooks says. "We butcher the meat one day, grind and stuff it into the casings the next, then smoke the sausage on the final day."
The three types of handmade sausage at The Pit Room may be the best at any Houston barbecue joint. There's a "Czech-style" all-beef sausage loaded with mustard seeds and other spices. The pork sausage features big chunks of fresh jalapeño peppers and melty cheese. And the venison sausage could be the standout of the bunch - dense, smoky and peppery.
Sambrooks and executive chef Bramwell Tripp employ a dedicated crew of chefs and cooks to produce the sausage as well as the other handmade menu items, including side dishes and desserts.
They are well prepared for the trials and tribulations of the restaurant business, often intensified in the smoky, hot haze of a pit room.
Sambrooks grew up in Kingwood, attended Baylor University and later the Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston. He then worked at high-profile restaurants such as Reef, Stella Sola and, most recently, Goode Co. Barbeque.
He met Tripp a few years ago, when they both worked at Liberty Kitchen & Oysterette in River Oaks. Later, as Sambrooks was getting the idea for The Pit Room off the ground, he ran into his old colleague at Revival Market, where he was working as a sous chef at the time. Tripp joined The Pit Room soon thereafter.
Though The Pit Room has been open only a few weeks, it is producing some of the best barbecue in Houston. Besides house-made sausage, I can recommend the excellent brisket and pork ribs.
Sambrooks and Tripp say they are still figuring things out and testing new menu items. They recently started serving dinner and took over the bar next door (formerly Jackson's Watering Hole, now called The Patio on Richmond) for extra seating.
They're also committed to producing Houston-influenced barbecue, which for Sambrooks means a Tex-Mex/Mexican influence. To that end, the menu offers brisket, pulled pork and chicken tacos with flour tortillas made in-house using fat collected from trimming briskets. The tacos - tortillas redolent of beef fat and piled high with smoky meat, cheddar cheese, sour cream and salsa roja - are a welcome sight.
Just like The Pit Room itself, which represents a significant evolution in the quality and craft of barbecue in Houston.
Columnist, Houston Chronicle
A native of Beaumont, J.C. Reid graduated from the University of Southern California after studying architecture and spent his early career as an architect in New York City. He returned to Texas in 1995, retiring from architecture but creating his own Internet business in Houston. As his business became self-sustaining, he began traveling Houston and the world to pursue his passion: eating barbecue. He began blogging about food and barbecue for the Houston Chronicle in 2010 and founded the Houston Barbecue Project in 2011 to document barbecue eateries throughout the area. Just last year, Reid and others founded the Houston Barbecue Festival to showcase mom-and-pop barbecue joints in the city. The 2014 event drew 2,000 guests to sample meats from 20 restaurants.You can view more of J.C.'s work at jcreidtx.com.